The Field of Reads: Weird Adventures in Course Design and Planning

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The texts for my honors, learning community, and writing courses.

The assigned books in my fall honors class are a weird mélange. Notice that I didn’t say “The books that I assigned…” A few of the included texts come via a menu of options generated by a committee of instructors teaching different sections of an honors class in the fall. Yes, I was part of the decision making process. Yes, I advocated for many of the books on the menu.

“Memory and Revision” is the loosely conceived theme of the fall honors course. The last time that I taught the course I imagined it as “History and Revision.” I tossed in Hamilton and The Female Review to augment the books I selected from the menu curated by the committee. (You can read more on teaching The Female Review with contemporary texts here.) These texts would still fit the theme. This time I wanted to use more contemporary texts.

My last honors class was a weird class. The students knew it was a weird class. We spent a lot of time on the things I knew best, but flew through things I wasn’t all that familiar with as a teacher or a scholar. It wasn’t a bad class, but it was off. I’m not saying the day-to-day functioning of the class was off. The texts fit together because of the theme. It was just weird. The students were troopers and helped the class work, too. Once we were all comfortable with each other we talked about the seemingly weird choices. I should have done that the first week of the semester.

This semester might be a weird mix, too. The texts themselves aren’t weird in the sense that Brie Jaquette wrote about here, but the pairings are weird. So, what is on the docket and why? Join me on a journey through this semester’s Field of Reads.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This is the summer reading. Students are asked to read this book over the summer, which I guess they will do. This text is common to all the honors classes. I advocated for the book during our meetings. Why? It was the shortest book; it was contemporary; it also seemed like the best option for students to read without any guidance. I was told it was a book that young folks often enjoyed reading. Other instructors pointed out that it worked well in class, too. I listened to an Audible version and absolutely loathed it. We’ll spend a week or two on the book at the semester’s start.

Fences and Radio Golf by August Wilson

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Book Ends: A desk copy and a personal copy

I read Fences a long time ago. I saw a production of Fences a long time ago, too. I’ve never seen or read Radio Golf. These two texts are from the menu of common texts. I advocated for the inclusion of these texts. My last three years in Pittsburgh have shown me that students don’t really know much about Pittsburgh. Many of them aren’t from Pittsburgh. Many of them claim to be from Pittsburgh, but are from suburbs or communities a good distance away.

In today’s Pittsburgh many students don’t know the history. The Pittsburgh of today hides its old self, and its long-standing problems, behind its new, glossy image as a forward-moving tech-driven city. It’s a lie. The problems Wilson addresses in his plays remain for many of Pittsburgh’s citizens. You can stand on the campus where I teach and see the legacy of Urban Renewal. You can see the interstates cutting through the downtown. You can see the luxury apartments. The food deserts. It’s all there. I advocated for Wilson’s work because the problems he details are still here in this city, even if they’re masked to many college students behind a sleek office buildings and the glossy university ad campaigns extolling the virtues of going to school downtown.

The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser

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Books of the Dead

This book isn’t part of the menu of books selected by the committee. The inclusion of this book is all on me. Rukeyser’s long poem details the story of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster and its aftermath. I’m including this book for many of the same reasons I advocated the selection of works by Wilson. Pittsburgh, of course, isn’t far from West Virginia, but West Virginia seems worlds away from Pittsburgh. I selected this text because it highlights the relationships between workers’ rights, the environment, issues of class, and issues of race. Rukeyser’s approach in The Book of the Dead fits the theme of history and memory—or memory and revision. Rukeyser’s poem is about many things, but I think justice, or more accurately injustice—or justice denied, is one of the important themes. I’m excited about including this text. I’m drawn to Rukeyser’s work because I love the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

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Book of the Dead of Hori, about 1969-945 BC; Cleveland Museum of Art

Rukeyser riffs off of  the ancient Egyptian text throughout her poem. I’ll be using the recently published edition of The Book of the Dead from West Virginia University Press. This new edition includes an excellent introductory essay by Catherine Venable Moore. (Read more about this landmark publication here.) As part of the unit on Rukeyser’s poem, we’ll take a look at some applicable passages from the ancient text that inspired her. Still, like the works by Wilson, it is an odd pairing with Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth and Before the Throne by Naguib Mahfouz

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This novel rates Aten out of Aten

These novels by Naguid Mahfous aren’t from the menu of committee options. I selected these texts based on the history/memory/revision theme. I also selected these works because they are contemporary texts. Plus, I thought these texts would be a nice pairing with the Egyptian themes in Rukeyser’s poem. There was also that stray email I received announcing that the Middle East as a theme this year for my university. Akhenaten tells the story of the heretic pharaoh of the same name through the perspectives of individuals that knew him. It certainly is a text that fits the theme of revision since each of the characters recount the reign of Akhenaten from their own perspective. It is also one of the few texts that I’ve actually read. I read this years ago when I was seriously considering becoming an Egyptologist. It was the summer going into my sophomore year of college. If you can’t tell I still like Ancient Egypt.

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A journey of 5000 years: From Narmer to Sadat.

The other book by Mahfouz, Before the Throne, covering nearly 5,000 years of Egyptian history, plays out through a tribunal before the court of Osiris as he and other gods of the Egyptian pantheon examine Egypt’s leaders. I hadn’t read the book until this summer, but I figured the book would fit the theme. I also see Before the Throne, with its invocation of a courtroom drama, as a fitting pairing with Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, especially because of the testimonial intertextuality of the poem. With these last three pairings we loop back to the theme of justice, too.

Let’s Get Weird
On the first day of the semester I’m planning on doing Abigail Burnham Bloom’s “First Paragraphs” activity from The Pocket Instructor: 101 Exercises for the College Classroom. (Read Shelli Homer’s review of The Pocket Instructor here.) In this exercise, students are presented a handout with all of the first paragraphs from the novels assigned for the semester. The activity serves as a way for introducing the texts and course to students. Plus, it is an activity that gets students (and the instructor) away from the standard go-over-the-syllabus-day. The activity provides an opportunity for students to meet the texts, ask questions, make connections, and start thinking about close reading.

Not Feeling So Weird
I’m about to email the book list to the students enrolled in the honors course. That soon-to-come email is the occasion for thinking about my weird class. I started writing this post because I wanted to explain my weird class, I guess, to myself. The summer is a long break between placing a book order and writing a syllabus. One can forget a lot about the solid choices that inform a book order.

Weigh In
Anubis says: Be sure to weigh in with your thoughts! Detail of a coffin at the Cleveland Museum of Art

A thousand words later and I feel a lot better about my weird class. Does your class feel weird because it needs to fulfill programmatic expectations or include texts from a menu curated from a committee? How much do you share with students about course planning and the choices that you make? We’d love to hear from you! Weigh in with a comment below or give us a shout on Twitter or Facebook!

All photos by the author.

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Rethinking the Revolution: Course (re)Design for Fall 2018

Figuring out what to write about for this post has been a challenge. I’m not currently teaching American literature, or literature at all for that matter. Instead, this semester I’m teaching a professional communication course for engineering students, and I’m co-teaching a seminar on manufacturing. Don’t get me wrong—that range of teaching is one of the most intellectually fulfilling parts of my job. Furthermore, as I’ve found in thinking about what to write for this post, having a semester “off” from teaching a seminar of my own has also given me an unique opportunity to see the course I taught last fall from a new perspective. So, in that spirit, for PALS this semester I’ll be writing about course design, or rather, course redesign.

In today’s post, I thought I’d work through my process for redesigning the seminar on the Age of Revolutions that I taught for the first time in Fall 2017. In our program, our courses go through a rigorous review process, first for provisional approval (to teach it the first time) and then once more for permanent approval (in order to teach it in the future without further review). Since this is the second time I’m teaching the course and it is now eligible for permanent approval, it’s particularly important for me to reflect critically on my course design. While I do a lot of thinking about teaching, it’s almost always on the run…both literally and figuratively. But, at some point, you have to stop and reflect with real intention and attention. That’s what I’m going to try to do now.

 

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Starting with Student Feedback
Reading and considering the feedback my students provided via their course evaluations was one of the first steps in re-thinking the course. Much of the feedback I had predicted. The students all noticed how the breadth of the course title (Age of Revolutions) didn’t really capture the focus of the course. Fair enough. Initially I had aspirations of somehow using the American Revolution as a way to get at revolutions more broadly, which we did to some extent but not enough to justify the title. The students also wanted to do more with the 18th/19th-century collections at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Dittrick Museum of Medical History They really enjoyed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton and really hated reading The Female Review (I say “reading” because they enjoyed the questions it raises about gender but they found it to be a slog). The students also raved about The Invention of Air, a book that examines the intersection of the scientific revolution with the American Revolution.

While on the surface it might seem like the students liked easy things to read and disliked the texts that challenged them, our discussions over the course of the semester suggest otherwise. Over and over, my students indicated that they were surprised by how engaging and clear the pieces we read were; where they expected historians to write dry, tedious tomes, they found rich narratives that made the 18th century seem not so distant. This was the big takeaway for me from the semester: build a class around readings that engage students and disrupt their assumptions about academic writing, and use history to think about narrative and the stories we tell about our past, our present, and our future. To do that, I will continue to assign pieces written for wider audiences alongside scholarly pieces. Scholars of early America have embraced public writing in ways that other scholars have not, and in part, this is why I’ve been teaching the American side of the 18th century in my seminars at Case Western. That so many of those scholars and public intellectuals are women and minorities makes the inclusion of a wider range of writing by scholars that much more important. And, on a STEM-focused campus, it feels even more urgent that I introduce my students to writers like Joanne Freeman, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Lyra D. Monteiro who are changing the landscape of academic scholarship.

Goals
In light of my students’ feedback and my own considerations over the last month or so, I’ve come up with a few goals for the Fall 2018 iteration of my course:

  • I want to design a course that complicates the traditional view of the American Revolution and the founding of the nation.
  • I want to design a course that contextualizes the war and founding within its political, social, and cultural contexts.
  • I want to design a course that introduces students to the war and founding from the perspective of minority figures.
  • I want to design a course that challenges students’ assumptions about scholarship on the revolutionary period and early republic.

The Big Questions
In thinking about how to meet these goals, I’ve run into some questions that I’ve been struggling to answer. How do I bring a narrower focus to the course? How do I ensure that it is still accessible to first-semester students? To begin to answer that question, I have to deal with Hamilton: what is its role in the class and in our inquiry? And, the million dollar question for me as a literature scholar, how do I integrate literature in the course? (Or, alternatively, should I? And is that ok?)

I can go one of two ways with Hamilton. It’s either just one of several representations of the Revolution that we consider, or, it’s a representation of the revolution and of the early republic that we respond to and, perhaps, push back against. I like Hamilton a lot (still haven’t seen it and, at this point, I’m just assuming I’ll catch it on the 10- and 20-year anniversary tours like Rent) but I wonder about its staying power. Has the Hamilton moment passed? Should it be at the center of an entire course?

One of the greatest challenges of teaching the 18th century in a first-year seminar is that students come to the course with little to no knowledge of the period, even in the American context. Of course, the entire point of these types of courses is to broaden students’ knowledge, to expose them to new ideas, and to invite them to respond to those ideas. With that in mind, I think I’ve talked myself into going all in on Hamilton. It does all the things I want a text to do in a class: Hamilton engages students and disrupts their assumptions, it opens up conversations about the past as well as the present and the future, and it presents history and the stories we tell about ourselves as narratives. My hope is that putting Hamilton at the center of the course will make the 18th century more accessible to students and open up avenues of inquiry for them in the process.

How then do I design the course to support students in responding to Hamilton? My idea at the moment is to dedicate the first month of the semester to a close study of the musical during which the students catalogue the assumptions the show makes about the figures, the culture, and the events that the show depicts. Then, we will place Hamilton within the growing critical context that surrounds it, which has raised questions about its representations of race, gender, and national identity in early America.

In the previous iteration of the course, I timed the focus on Hamilton in much the same way, and so I know that I can expect students to have reached a point where they are able to respond to the musical with a good deal of sophistication and nuance. However, this time, I want to help them to buttress their responses with knowledge of the time period that they almost certainly won’t have when they arrive in my classroom. To do that, I am putting together a reading list of texts from the revolutionary period and early republic that can serve as a measuring stick for us as we push back against the assumptions at work in the musical. Thus far, I’m considering works

  • by women and by black writers such as Phillis Wheatley, Mercy Otis Warren, Judith Sargent Murray, and Olaudah Equiano.
  • about individuals who had no means to have their voices heard, such as Ona Judge, whose story of escaping enslavement by George and Martha Washington has been told in a recent book by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, and Sally Hemings, who is referenced in Hamilton and whose story has been told by Annette Gordon-Reed.
  • that demonstrate the period’s anxieties about national identity, foreignness, and that it means to be an American, such as Royall Tyler’s play The Contrast, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, and excerpts from J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer.

You’ll notice that this list includes both fiction as well as non-fiction, which brings me to the final question that I’ll need to answer in order to redesign this course: what about literature? I think a lot about the ways that the current academic job market affects how faculty who teach in general education, first-year studies, and like programs conceive of their expertise and their professional identities. Both anecdotally and in a small-scale survey I conducted a few years ago, I’ve found that those of us in these sorts of positions can come to feel that a gulf develops between the work we began as graduate students and the work we have ended up doing as faculty. I’ve certainly felt this way, especially when it comes to teaching (or not teaching) literature. My training is in literary studies and criticism, but when I consider the goals and learning outcomes of the courses that I teach, literature isn’t always the best way to achieve those. So, another part of redesigning a course for me in the coming weeks is going to be thinking about the role that literature plays in it (or doesn’t). Next time, I’ll take up that question and share my progress on the redesign.